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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (PC) artwork

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (PC) review

"There was a point about halfway through the new S.T.A.L.K.E.R. when I realised I was playing a radically different game to the one I started a couple of days previously. The change is a gradual one, but by the time the phenomenal ambition of the early levels has become a mere memory, it's certainly noticeable. There's a conflict of interest at the heart of Clear Sky between radically open warfare and traditional first-person shooting. Neither of these facets achieves its aims perfectly, but there remains a lot to love about GSC Game World's latest creation..."

There was a point about halfway through the new S.T.A.L.K.E.R. when I realised I was playing a radically different game to the one I started a couple of days previously. The change is a gradual one, but by the time the phenomenal ambition of the early levels has become a mere memory, it's certainly noticeable. There's a conflict of interest at the heart of Clear Sky between radically open warfare and traditional first-person shooting. Neither of these facets achieves its aims perfectly, but there remains a lot to love about GSC Game World's latest creation.

Unfortunately for Clear Sky, it's the earlier sections of the game that stick in the mind first and foremost. While there's little in the way of a friendly introduction for newcomers to the series, once the basics are mastered there's a spectacularly rich world to explore, full of mystery and intrigue, scarred with the evidence of a factional war over the fascinating expanse of The Zone. Set in the years between the real-life Chernobyl disaster and the events of the original game, Clear Sky drops you in the boots of Scar, a mercenary lucky to escape with his life after a huge emission of radiation from ground zero. Awakening at the headquarters of the eponymous Clear Sky faction, Scar finds himself drawn into the conflict in search of answers and a remedy for his increasingly poor health. It's a functional, if not instantly striking, narrative, adequately paving the way for the unfolding story. But Clear Sky lacks the memorable and credible characters required to fulfil its potential. There are plenty of people to talk to, but much of their information runs out within the opening thirty minutes. After this, it can be hours or more before meeting the next character with anything interesting to say.

It's The Zone itself that plays the starring role here. Crafted meticulously based on the actual area surrounding Chernobyl in Ukraine, it once again provides a wonderful setting for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., enthralling and terrifying at every turn. The aftermath of the disaster is plain to see, and the bullet holes, blood and corpses overlaying it only add to the wonderful effect. This time round, though, the survival horror influences have taken a backseat, allowing the palpable sense of real war to shine through. It's a successful shift, and while it removes some of the fear factor that made the original game so special, it adds bucket loads of atmosphere in other areas.

One time, for example, I was asked to help defend a small village from renegade attacks. My comrades and I spent a good ten minutes crouched behind a wall, leaning out to take the occasional pot-shot before diving back towards cover. The shouts and screams of those doing battle, coupled with the creaks and groans from ground zero - not to mention the constant feeling of how horrific war really is - gripped me from the second the first shots fired until the situation finally calmed down. Another time, I found myself sprinting at full speed for the nearest outpost, watching the clock as it ticked down towards the next radioactive emission, desperately hoping I would find adequate cover from the blast. A wonderful period of frantic immersion. On another occasion, during one of the rare quiet moments, I listened to a bartender tell jokes before joining fellow faction members for a sing-along around the campfire. Every second of Clear Sky feels utterly real and equally significant. Even the sheer moments of confusion that arise from time to time, perhaps a result of lazy design rather than actual intent, feel perfectly right. An unchartered war zone is a confusing place.

It's this compelling atmosphere that carries Clear Sky, because from a pure game design perspective it's deeply flawed. GSC has evidently focused on creating a living, breathing gaming environment at the expense of an intuitive gameplay experience, and at times this grates. Things like the abhorrent difficulty spikes, which the developers probably thought added to the sense that war isn't fair sometimes, instead serve only to ruin any enjoyment as you find yourself reloading the game time and time again - and the nature of the AI system, whilst wonderful, means trial and error is rarely an option. Then there are the huge packs of bandits that periodically rob you of your entire inventory. Simply fighting them off is an option in theory, but their first appearances are at a point in the game where players are unlikely to have established a strong enough character to do so. To top it off, Clear Sky has a tendency to totally contradict its usual open-plan nature with a ridiculous moment of linearity. Entering the second area of the game involves walking through a tunnel emerging directly in front of an enemy outpost. Jumping the waist-high fence a few hundred metres away would have been an infinitely more sensible tactic, were it not for the invisible wall placed above it.

One of the biggest pieces of design idiocy is in the collection of artefacts - rare supernatural items with astronomical research value. These return from the original title as both a key plot element and supposedly the primary way of earning money in the game. But there's a big change. Whereas in Shadow of Chernobyl these were perfectly noticeable, bouncing around in the more dangerous territories of The Zone, Clear Sky turns them invisible and forces you to use a detector to uncover them. You can see the logic behind this decision: it presents more of a challenge, and adds to the realistic direction the series has taken. But when these items reside solely in anomalous areas - regions which, when entered, gradually sap your health to the point of death - it becomes a horrific burden. As such, Clear Sky inexplicably forces you into its theoretically open-plan structure. Immersive sim players who largely crack straight on with the main plot will find themselves failing spectacularly. The new artefact system is so difficult to exploit that thereís rarely much money to be made without methodically ticking off each available sub-quest, totally shattering the illusion of free choice. While thereís always a way around a problem, and the lengths required make the eventual result somewhat rewarding, the frustration of actually progressing in the game is often a step too far.

When Clear Sky does allow for true freedom of choice - namely, its opening quarter - it's wonderful. Messages pop up on your PDA, asking for help in situations in exchange for often hefty rewards. The fabulous AI is a joy to behold here: accepting a mission does not necessarily mean eventual success, as it's entirely feasible that a group of non-player characters may do the job for you in the meantime. Skirmishes take place on the map miles away from your current location, rendering the game's structure wildly unpredictable yet lovably fresh and intriguing. The fascinating nature of the faction AI makes it all the more depressing when the story later forces you down a largely predictable path of 'Find this man, reclaim this village, deliver this item, repeat.' The AI ecology stops being as impressive once the game starts placing specific sets of enemies in your path instead of allowing them to roam free around the vast world. Clear Sky starts as a courageous and exciting attempt to push the boundaries of design limitation. It turns into 'merely' a solid first-person shooter.

Solid, insofar as it remains interesting, tense and enjoyable throughout. Not, by any means, in terms of stability. Fighting is intense, challenging and exciting - but enemies still occasionally shoot you through brick walls or get stuck on scenery. The framerate jumps between gorgeously smooth and atrociously choppy, though it's forgivable in an engine as divine as this one. Sometimes, the game doesn't realise youíve completed a mission, and there's a lot of unfathomable waiting around for it to do so. Clear Sky is littered with bugs, but many don't spoil the enchanting feel of the game as a whole. One, however, did.

Around 30 hours into the game, somewhere around two-thirds of the way through, I entered a story-essential bunker in search of a character who'd been on the run from my faction for some time. As I edged my way towards his location, a bomb exploded, knocking me unconscious. After coming round, I found myself staring at the wall for quite some time, unable to move. It took me a minute or so to realise the game had frozen.

It did this every time I attempted to enter the bunker, no matter which save-game I loaded, and no matter when I tried to complete the mission. A quick internet search reveals a number of people experiencing the same problem, and a hastily-released patch seems to solve it... only it corrupts all your save files, meaning starting again from scratch. Other players are having similar issues elsewhere in The Zone: game-destroying crashes that completely prevent you from reaching the end. How a game can be released in this condition is beyond me. It's one thing for a game to stutter and freeze occasionally. It's another for it to break so resolutely that it's absolutely impossible to continue.

So I never did finish S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, meaning I can't comment on the way the story resolves, or whether or not the game opens up again towards the end into the gem it once was. I've dwelled upon an enormous amount of faults with Clear Sky, but it's important to understand that this disappointment stems mainly from the game's underlying quality. When it's working, it's fantastically enjoyable; at its finest points, it's mesmerising. That it still gets so much wrong is a crushing blow given its early promise, and its awful release condition adds insult to injury. Buy it, play the first ten hours, then never touch it again. You'll probably reckon it's one of the greatest games in the world.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (September 20, 2008)

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